Churches destroyed a year ago by Islamic extremists and police in Aceh Singkil – a rural ‘regency’ in Indonesia’s only Sharia-ruled province – have still not been rebuilt because of discrimination against Christians by local authorities, say church leaders. However, despite the troubles, church membership is climbing.
Hardliners started destroying Aceh Singkil churches in October 2015 following clashes between Muslims and Christians in another part of the country. Some churches were razed by extremists and others demolished by police following demands from residents that all unlicensed churches be pulled down.
11 churches demolished last year, the members of six continue to meet in tents. The rest have joined other churches, but many live in fear of further violence. “The perpetrators live in the neighbourhood and they always watch my church members’ activities,” said Noldi,* whose church meets in two sites 25km apart – to cater for its growing numbers.
Video from Oct. 2015 shows an angry mob marching and setting fire to the Indonesian Christian Church in Sukamakmur village, Aceh Singkil. Officials in uniform seem unable to stop the attack on the church which had been a place of Christian worship since 1968.
Boru Manik, a local church member, added: “I’m sad that we have to worship in tents in the middle of a palm-oil plantation. But we’re keeping our spirits high.”
The heavy rain in largely tropical Indonesia can be a problem in temporary structures. “[Rain] has happened many times, but we still continue the service. Even if the tents are leaking and rainwater or mud is splashing in from the outside, no-one ever leaves the service!” said a member of the Indonesian Christian Church.
The authorities allow Christians to meet in these temporary structures, but church leaders say they are nevertheless playing politics with plans for new buildings. Churches fear that these authorities are reluctant to grant them planning permission because it would not be popular with Aceh’s largely Muslim voters in the run-up to local elections in February 2017.
Alongside this, all local churches that were not destroyed must become licensed, but the registration process is slow and churches fear it will not be prioritised during election campaigning.
Lamhot*, a Christian activist, told World Watch Monitor that it is already too late to expect building permits to be issued by the authorities now that candidates have started registering for the election. Lamhot’s church was burned down last year and services are now held in tents in the nearby woods. Even this also requires a permit, denied by the government to many hundreds more on security grounds.
Another setback is the formula planners insist is used to estimate the size of a new church. They stipulate that estimates must be based on the number of church members with local identity cards, multiplied by 0.8 metres. Outsiders without local ID cards may not be counted, so new churches are in danger of being granted too small a plot if most of their members are not local.
Berutu, a member of Pakpak Dairi Christian Church in the village of Pertabas, is disappointed by the lack of progress. “The government is afraid of pressures from Muslim clerics and extremists,” she said. “When they gave instructions to knock down our church, they were no longer our protectors.”
Local politicians are putting added pressure on the Church in the lead-up to elections. The regency chief who instigated last year’s demolition of unlicensed churches – a move agreed by Christians following last year’s religious clashes – wants each church to appoint five people to his election campaign team. Christians believe it is a bribe to win him their backing, but understand that other candidates are less tolerant of Christianity. “Vote wisely for your leaders – our fate for the next five years depends on it,” Berutu told her congregation.